News & Politics

“I Wanted to Help”

She decided to give some kids a brighter future—even if it meant selling her own house

Photograph by Matthew Worden.

On the walls of the room where Lidia Schaefer works hang photos of a school in Feres Mai, Ethiopia, the village where the beautician grew up. When clients at DC’s Fusion Day Spa ask Schaefer about the photos, she talks about the new school that 1,500 students attend. What she doesn’t often say is that her efforts built it.

“Whenever I would visit, my heart just . . . I can’t even describe it,” Schaefer says, leafing through photos of children in purple uniforms. “I’d see them and they’d say, ‘Take us to America! We want to go to school!’ So I told them, ‘One day I will build you a school.’ ”

The nearest school was a three-hour walk. In 1998, a seven-year-old girl, Medhine—to whom Schaefer used to send a few dollars a month—was killed by a hyena while walking home from school. “She got lost behind the others,” says Schaefer. “I wanted to help other parents protect their children.”

Schaefer negotiated with the local government to give her a plot of land. Then she started fundraising—telling clients about the project (, working extra days, and setting aside a third of her earnings. “In four years, it came to around $50,000,” she says. “That was a lot of money, but then they said it was going to cost more than that.” So Schaefer gave away her car, saving $250 a month on insurance and expenses. Then she sold her house in Silver Spring.

“It was a small house,” says Schaefer, 47. “It was for me and my children, but they’d grown up and moved away. I’d spent so much money for my two children. Now, for the same money, 1,500 children go to school.”

The school opened in 2006. Local officials named it the Lidia Secondary School. Schaefer is still saving money to buy equipment. She did write to one person about her cause.

“I wrote to Oprah,” she says. “I heard that she was building a school, too. She started after me and finished before me. But then I remembered: She’s Oprah.”

This article first appeared in the December 2009 issue of The Washingtonian. For more articles from that issue, click here.